AIN Blog: Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Disruptors of Aviation

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Garmin G3X
Garmin's experimental G3X displays could be an avionics disruptor. Photo courtesy of Garmin.
April 2, 2013 - 6:20am

Maybe for general aviation to survive, we need more disruption.

An article published in Wired magazine (Clayton Christensen Wants to Transform Capitalism, by Jeff Howe) discussed how successful companies often fail to recognize that new companies with “disruptive innovations” are about to take over their marketplace.

As Howe wrote, “Successful businesses, Christensen explained, are trained to focus on what he calls sustaining innovations—innovations at the profitable, high end of the market, making things incrementally bigger, more powerful, and more efficient. The problem is that this leaves companies vulnerable to the disruptive innovations that emerge in the murky, low-margin bottom of the market. And this is where the true revolutions occur, creating new markets and wreaking havoc within industries. Think: the PC, the MP3, the transistor radio.”

There may be parallels in the general aviation industry, which by all accounts is still stagnating. Maybe some disruption would help.

For example, when Embraer made a strong push into the business aviation market with new clean-sheet designs, that was disruptive. And the old-line manufacturers did little, at the time, to counter this disruption. Cessna finally scrambled to field new models to compete with Embraer and the former Hawker Beechcraft experienced a wrenching bankruptcy, shutting down its jet manufacturing business in the process. Should these companies have moved faster to counter Embraer’s disruption? Probably, but maybe no one recognized the disruption.

For another example, Garmin recently revealed that an internal group called Team X has been developing low-cost but powerful avionics for the experimental market. While these avionics are built and tested to high standards, they don’t meet all of the certification requirements that avionics for certified aircraft must meet. Yet the builder of an experimental airplane can fly IFR in instrument meteorological conditions with experimental avionics, sharing the same airspace with the rest of the certified aviation world. These experimental avionics sell for far, far less than their equivalent certified big brothers, but are probably just as reliable and safe. Disruptive? I think so.

What would be even more disruptive would be the FAA recognizing that certification in some cases adds very little safety value. Flying magazine editor-in-chief Robert Goyer captured this in a blog post, suggesting that the FAA relax certification requirements for retrofits of older aircraft weighing less than 6,000 pounds. The least expensive certified glass panel PFD for retrofit costs more than $10,000. What incentive is there for the owner of a $30,000 Piper Cherokee to upgrade? But what if that Garmin G3X glass panel cost just $4,375, and adding an integrated two-axis autopilot cost another $1,500?

Garmin is not new to the idea of disruption. The company’s Garmin Pilot iPad app, consistently growing in capability, could be viewed as another example of internal disruption. The app costs a fraction of what a new Garmin portable aviation GPS unit costs, although the app doesn’t (yet) offer all of the portable’s features. Of course, the iPad itself disrupted the electronic flight bag market.

Here’s another idea. The Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category was supposed to be disruptive, but I’m not sure that has been the case. Cessna jumped into LSAs with a relatively low-cost airplane—the Skycatcher—which quickly garnered deposits for more than 1,000 orders. Last year, Cessna delivered just 19 Skycatchers. Some think this is because Cessna’s new leadership raised the price too high. Others think that the new leadership is simply not interested in the LSA market and is trying to shut the program down.

Whatever…so how about some real disruption, Cessna? Give away a Skycatcher with every new aircraft purchase, from a new 172 to a Citation X. This would either lead to a huge reduction in flight training and rental costs and a fresh crop of new pilots who admire Cessna products, or it would prove once and for all whether Cessna ought to serve the LSA market. Either way, the results will be dramatic, and Cessna will learn something new. Lessons like that often deliver extraordinary value. 

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Mark Sires
on April 2, 2013 - 4:06pm

The FAA needs to figure out how to do this. 'Airframe' certification requirements for electronics is not very useful. Certifying that the electronics meet the requirements for safe use in the airspace system is good, but, at least in small planes, the installation into any particular airframe, if done by licensed repair stations, which is required anyway, is less likely to cause an unsafe condition than the vacuum driven gauges that they can replace.

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PB
on April 2, 2013 - 4:12pm

Experimental quality radios and avionics would be just fine. They work, and can fail whether they are certificated or not. The failure risk between certificated equipment and experimental is equal, and the benefits great because the lower cost will encourage owners to upgrade to modern equipment rather than flying with archaic, failure prone old equipment.

In the interest of aviation safety, it will be helpful if the FAA recognizes that lower cost equipment, whether certificated or experimental, will improve safety due to the quality and safety improvements over old technology.

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Ace
on April 2, 2013 - 5:29pm

It is common practice for pilots to use portable avionics during IFR training or actual. Nominally, the pilot of a legacy aircraft is flying IFR using VORs, but he as the astonishing ability to maintain a straight flight path even when experiencing a 20 kt crosswind. Something that he shouldn't really be able to do with VOR alone. For some reason having that iPad in the cockpit provides a bit more than supplemental navigation capability.
I think the FAA is now facing something similar to what the Michigan Department of Natural Resources faced when cougars reappeared in the state. There was a lot of evidence that they were here, scientists even collected cougar scat. Cameras were set up that took photos of cougar. After a long time of this the DNR admitted that they were present and developed a conservation plan.
So it is in GA. We know that pilots are flying with ipads, the FAA knows what pilots are using them for primary navigation. Pilots know that non-certified avionics are good. So they get them in there airplanes as non-primary flight displays.
GA pilots know, that the FAA knows, that GA pilots know that the rules need to be changed. But we'll play this game for a while, until market forces dictate that the FAA change the rules.
Personally, I will welcome the day when I can take my purpose built $400 tablet out to my plane, with my flight plan preloaded with all radio frequencies, course direction, and anticipated speed; and just plug it into a mount on my panel where it will act as my radio, autopilot and pull in all sensor data for appropriate display. It will have synthetic vision, night vision display and a weather and traffic overlay.
I fly with a guy who has the $25,000 (with installation costs) GNS430w installed. He hardly even uses it. It's there for legal reasons. He prefers his 296 mounted on the glare shield and his iPad loaded with Foreflight.

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John
on April 2, 2013 - 5:41pm

Yeah! Cessna could give away a free Skycatcher with every other model sold and loose a little on each deal but, make it up in volume. That will be a hard sale...to Cessna anyway.

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Greg W
on April 2, 2013 - 6:00pm

For VFR usage portable units are great, keep the required minimum equipment and just replace the not-required Nav/Com,ADF,DME,etc. Even the comm. radio if not listed as required equipment may be replaced with hand held. A suitable enclosure can make most units designed for panel mounting portable as well, all that is needed is an adequate power supply.

No Avatar
Greg W
on April 2, 2013 - 6:00pm

For VFR usage portable units are great, keep the required minimum equipment and just replace the not-required Nav/Com,ADF,DME,etc. Even the comm. radio if not listed as required equipment may be replaced with hand held. A suitable enclosure can make most units designed for panel mounting portable as well, all that is needed is an adequate power supply.

No Avatar
P.A. Curs
on April 2, 2013 - 6:15pm

We owners of old certified airplanes can't get accurate, digital fuel guages to depend on since the manufacturer is out of business and no one wants to spend thousands for an expensive STC. So, we fly the old guages which are there for no more than decoration, and depend on "sticking the tanks" with marked paint sticks and always carrying more fuel than we need because the FAA demands that any system put in a "certified" airplane must be "certified" while the E-AB airplanes all around can use UNcertified systems and guages without a problem. This is creating an unsafe situation for owners of vintage "certified" airplanes.

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Walt Buskey
on April 2, 2013 - 7:06pm

I'm a student pilot at this time, trying to realize a life-long dream as I near retirement. I see this issue as one of the biggest facing GA today. I simply can't afford to pay the price for certificated upgrades on my 57-year-old Tri-Pacer (who can?), while at the same time am amazed by the capabilities of my $400 i-Pad compared with the instrumentation I'm required to have.

It's a crying shame that the FAA, whose mission is to promote aviation safety (have I got that wrong?) apparently doesn't see this, or chooses not to. The bureaucracy associated with any repairs or modifications to my old airplane --I'm a mechanic by nature-- just astounds me.

When I first read the article about Garmin's recent EA-category release... well, how do you spell "drool"....

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kevin
on April 2, 2013 - 7:40pm

This would be remarkable if it happens. But most government agencies will keep growing, this would reduce some workload at the FAA, then how would they justify that department. It would be interesting to know how many people work there monitoring this data.

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kevin
on April 2, 2013 - 7:40pm

This would be remarkable if it happens. But most government agencies will keep growing, this would reduce some workload at the FAA, then how would they justify that department. It would be interesting to know how many people work there monitoring this data.

No Avatar
Leonard
on April 2, 2013 - 10:41pm

We need disruptive changes in powerplants. Modern auto engines are more reliable and require less maintenance than typical GA engines. Even Rotax certified engines are more expensive than similarly rated high efficiency auto engines; likely due to production inefficiencies resulting from small annual quantities. This would also allow a quicker solution to the UL fuel issues as legacy engines were replaced with engines designed for UL fuel.

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